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| 12 minutes read

CMO Series EP145 - John Neidecker of Norris McLaughlin on The Evolving Role Of Thought Leadership In Legal Marketing

The role of thought leadership in legal marketing is changing. Traditional tactics like rankings and sponsorships are no longer top priorities. The rise of digital is enabling smaller firms to compete more effectively and measure the impact of their marketing. 

Today on the CMO Series, Charles Cousins welcomes John Neidecker, Director of Business Development and Marketing at Norris McLaughlin, to reflect on the past quarter-century in the profession, and explore the pivotal role of thought leadership in today's legal market.

John and Charles discuss:

  • What legal marketing looked like 25 years ago when John joined the industry
  • Who the trailblazers were back then and how they forged the way for the legal marketers today
  • What the role of thought leadership in marketing was back then versus now
  • The opportunities for law firms now and if there are greater opportunities for smaller firms to compete with the big firms
  • What’s becoming less important to legal marketing teams today
  • Advice for lawyers and marketing and BD professionals to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital and thought leadership

CharlesIn the ever-changing realm of legal marketing, new and innovative strategies are often emerging while some traditional methods are losing their effectiveness. The advent of digital technology has somewhat leveled the playing field, allowing smaller law firms to compete more effectively with their larger competitors.

Today we delve into the evolving landscape of legal marketing, focusing on the growing importance of thought leadership and its impact on business development and marketing strategies. Joining us today is John Neidecker, Director of Business Development and Marketing at Norris McLaughlin, to reflect on over two decades of experience and discuss the crucial role of thought leadership in the current legal market.

Charlie: The CMO Series podcast is brought to you by Passle. Passle makes thought leadership simple, scalable and effective, so professional services firms can stay front of mind with their clients and prospects when it matters most. Find out more and request a demo at Now back to the podcast.

Charles: Welcome to the CMO Series podcast, John. 

John: Thanks, Charles. Glad to be here.

Charles: As mentioned, you've been in this industry for over two decades and have also the insight from working in those large global law firms and also the regional law firms. So you've sort of seen both sides. Maybe to kick things off, we can jump back in time to what the legal marketing space looked like 20, 25 years ago.

John: Yeah. Well, 25 years ago, marketing in law firms was still very much in its infancy.There was a joke about not being able to say the S word in sales in some law firms still today. I think that's changing. But back then, And in many firms, you couldn't even say the M word. Marketing was just not an accepted function at some of the larger firms. And they didn't really even think of it as a business, as a profession, and certainly didn't think of themselves as businessmen and businesswomen.

And all that's changed in the last 25 years is they've realized the value of marketing and business development. When I think back on it, I think we don't take time and pay tribute enough to some of the people who were in the field. We were just all sort of trying to figure it out on the fly. But people like Norm Ludenstein, Deborah McMurray, Sylvia Coulter, Jim Durham, Jim Cranston, Anta Lakeville, Flannery, Linda Williams, really helped carve a path for today's middle-marketing professions.

Charles: And what was the role of thought leadership in marketing back then? What sort of role did that play, and how does that compare to now?

John: Well, it was still important. I mean, I think it was just harder to accomplish than it is now. There were a lot of white papers done, a lot of public speaking. I remember when the Sarbanes-Oxley Act hit in 2001, 2002, somewhere in there, the firm I was with then decided, well, we're going to do a white paper. So it took maybe three weeks, I think, if I remember correctly, to get the white paper out. And all firms were doing this, trying to get things out to their clients, trying to digest that act and figure out what it meant to them. And I knew at the time that was just taking way too long. I remember talking to a client, in general counsel of a big company shortly after that, and I asked him how many white papers he got in Sarbanes-Oxley. He said, oh, probably a dozen. I said, well, how many did you read? I said, well, one, you know, the first one I received.

So it is just much easier today with the advent of the internet. And back then, it wasn't just about leadership. Everything was harder. Just staying connected to your contacts, your network, was so much more difficult. I mean, you look back on it now, and I think if you met someone, just for example, say you met someone at an event, you got their business card. And the next morning, you're reading the Wall Street Journal. And, of course, the physical Wall Street Journal because the digital version didn't exist. And say you ran across an article that you knew that individual would be interested in. Back then you had to go to your copier, you had to cut the article out or fold it just right so that you could make a copy of it.

Go to your physical Rolodex, find his card, hope that he had a fax number listed. Go to the fax machine and fax it to him or her. I hope that there was fax paper in the machine on their end and then call them to let them know that you didn't send it. Where today, if you're reading an article anywhere, chances are there's a button that says share this article, and you can just do it with one click. So very different back then. So, when I hear associates complaining that they don't have time to keep up with people in the network, I find that really hard to accept.

Charles: Yeah, and I guess that's what I mentioned earlier, this new technology and the advent of digital technology is sort of leveling the playoff field and making everything a bit easier. So, in terms of opportunities for law firms now, when we think about your experience in those larger law firms and the smaller law firms with new technologies and the new way marketing is being done, is there a greater opportunity for those smaller firms to compete with those bigger firms?

John: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I think in general, firms have been able to play up. I mean, back 25 years ago, law firms were barely segmented, and the top tier firms were working primarily with in-house counsel in the Fortune 500, and then there were a bunch of firms handling the middle market work, and then small firms were primarily representing individuals and small businesses, and you know the internet the rise of social digital media you know greater sophistication our use of websites and market positioning and all that as you know has led to smaller firms you know would be more contented And those top big companies are, I think the GCs have been under a lot of pressure to save money, reduce costs. And at the same time, they've been able to identify smaller firms that can bring the same level of expertise, the same level of client service, but at lower rates. So, that value proposition is more easily recognized now and allows them to play out. And small firms are able to do the same and more easily play in the middle market. 

Charles: Yeah, I guess that makes sense. In terms of, I guess, marketing activities that are becoming less important, do you think there's been a shift in that? So perhaps something that was more important a decade ago and maybe less important now? I know when we spoke before, you mentioned certain rankings and sponsorships that maybe don't hold the weight that they once did.

John: Yeah, well, the rankings, I don't think they ever really held much weight, but I think there's a greater realization now that that's just not how in-house counsel selects their law firms. You look at the amount of time and money that marketing departments spend on it, that's something that's been a long time coming. I'm glad to see that change. If there's one question I have always asked in-house counsel, whether it's an in-house counsel panel or I'm just speaking with an individual, and what value, if any, do you put on rankings in selecting a law firm? And the answer for 25 years has been zero. Occasionally, someone will mention Chambers, but not that they're selecting law firms based on Chambers rankings. They sometimes use it as cover for the CEO or the board when they're recommending a firm, and those guys may not know who the firm is. If they can say their top tier firm in Chambers, it can be helpful. But that's it.

So yeah, the rankings. Other things, client newsletters, the white papers, things we were doing back then, I think they sort of waned. 25 years ago, there was a big debate at the time about the value of advertising. The image ads that a lot of firms were running, spending a lot of money back then. I don't see that as much anymore. I think that's a good thing. Webinars, I think still have a place, but I think podcasts have become sort of the content vehicle of choice for clients and prospects, because they don't have to take an hour out of the day to speak on a webinar. They can listen to a podcast in the car or at some gathering by the pool.

Charles: Yeah, it makes sense. And I guess a question to flip that around: if you are operating in, I guess, a small team with limited resources, what are a few things you would prioritize like, I guess, the things that you can do with minimal resources to have maximum impact? What are the key things you would encourage marketing professionals to focus their energy on?

John:  Yeah. There are several things, but I think you really can't afford to them not pay a lot of attention to the social media and digital media channels and how you're using that to position your firm and partners as thought leaders. The value for the dollar is really high, and it doesn't cost that much to get really top quality podcasts and audio and video equipment, and then educate your partners on the use of that. And that I think can make a big difference and allow you to play a lot larger than you are. 

Charles: Yeah. Fantastic. Well, we're at the point in the podcast now where we're going to jump into to the quickfire round, we're just going to ask you a few questions just to find out a bit more about you and what you're into. So the first question I've got is, what are you listening to or reading now?

John: Oh, I'm rereading a collection of essays by Jim Harris. He's my favorite author. He's dead now, but he's probably most famous for writing Legends of the Fall and doing the screenplay for the movie. And he's done a bunch of novels, but I really like his essays. And I'm rereading a book called Just Before Dark, which has been out for a long time. But it's a great read.

Charles: Oh, fantastic. fantastic and listening to anything at the moment?

John: I haven't had time. I'm sorry it's been boring.

Charles: all good that's all good, and maybe we can cut you in. You could say I'm listening to the the Passle podcast and it's brilliant. 

John: well I am. I have recently discovered a playlist on Spotify called French Cafe Music. No, French Lounge Music. I think that's what it's called. Or maybe it's French Lounge Cafe. I can't remember. But it's basically French music that I can put on in the background. I've discovered that I can work to it. I can stay focused on other things. I play my playlist. I want to listen to music.

Charles: Yeah. A bit of ambient French music going on to keep you focused. And what was your first job? 

John: My very first job was probably mowing lawns for a few dollars when I was 12 years old. But my first real job was probably college, between college semesters. I had a job as a park ranger for the Corps of Engineers, collecting camping fees from folks camping in their parks. And that was a lot of fun. And wore my little ranger outfit and drove around in trucks and got to meet a lot of people.

Charles: That sounds like a great first job. 

John: Yeah, it was good fun.

Charles: Outside your work, when you're not in the law firm, what are your hobbies or pastimes?

John: Well, I like the outdoors, I like gardening, mountain biking, hiking. I paint. I've been painting for years as a hobby, but that's taken on a life in recent years. And that's really helped keep me sane. I think, for a lot of us, it's important to have a kind of creative balance to life in law firms. So, whether it's painting or photography or playing music or a musical instrument, anything like that, I think for creative types, it provides an important balance.

Charles: And is that painting something you've always done?

John: Yeah. I mean, I grew up enjoying drawing and picked up a soft pastel set on my honeymoon years and years ago in Paris and bought a book and just kind of taught myself. But yeah, it's been, it's been good fun. I wouldn't look at my shameless self-promotional plug. If you want to look at my, my art site, you can find it. It's just Not a very creative name, but. Simple, simple and effective.

Charles: So get on, and you can see John's latest work. To wrap up, what is your favorite place to visit NY?

John: I just came back from there recently. I have good friends who live in Seattle that have a vacation home in Escalante, Utah, which is in the middle of nowhere. I think it's five hours from the nearest airport. It's in the Escalante Grand Staircase Monument, which is almost two million acres of just beautiful country and almost no one. We rode motorcycles for three hours one day just across the high desert there and didn't see a soul. So it's a very unique part of the country, one of the most remote parts of the US.

Charles: It sounds fantastic. I do love the desert. So yeah, you can check it out.

John: Check it out. Yeah. Brill.

Charles: Well, to wrap things up in the podcast, we always like to ask our podcast guests the same question, and that is, what would be your one piece of advice for lawyers and marketing and BD professionals to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital and thought leadership today. So what's your one piece of advice you would give them?

John: Well, my advice for lawyers would be to think hard about your practice and its applications for social and digital media. And for younger associates and young partners to think about how they can carve out a niche, because I think the nichier your practice is, the more easy it is to stand out on digital and social media and to position yourself in the market as a thought leader in that area. Our chairman, it's interesting, the chairman here at my current firm got some really good advice years and years ago. He started a blog and seems to do a lot of work with business divorce situations, co-owners and family sometimes. We're trying to resolve issues and that obviously is a pretty niche practice.

He set up a blog and again, that was maybe 20 years ago. And he said he could point to millions of dollars in legal fees coming as a direct result of responses to the blog. So that would be it for lawyers, for legal marketing professionals and how I would say, invest in good equipment and the knowledge to produce good podcast videos, blogs take advantage of this medium because it allows you to play a lot bigger than you are. 

Charles: well john, thanks for coming on today. It's been great to hear your experiences from how the legal space has changed from when you started 25 years ago to how it is now. It sounds like for the lawyers it's quite simple you know find a niche and for the marketing and bd professionals take some time to upskill yourself invest in good equipment and  that's really going to set you up for a win. It's been a pleasure to talk and I'll see you at the CMO series live in New York.

John: Thanks, Charles. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks for having me.


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